When the cell phone videos begin, everyone is already screaming at Darin Lee. Police officers are ordering him to back up with their guns drawn. Bystanders warn officers that “he’s just high.” A woman from the window of a nearby Kensington rowhouse adds to a chorus of shouts coming from all directions.
The 31-year-old was at Front and Allegheny late in the evening of Sept. 2 when the cops confronted him. They reportedly saw him jump onto a moving vehicle and reach into the driver’s side window. The vehicle fled, but Lee was still there, facing 24th District officers.
Police said he was holding a utility knife, and they ordered him to drop it. Multiple videos of the Labor Day encounter show Lee lumber across the street toward the officers, arms outstretched. He moves toward Officer Mateo Garcia-Cardona — and unidentified voices can be heard screaming louder.
“Back up! Back up!” the officers yell.
“Just taze him!” a bystander shouts.
Then, a burst of gunfire. Garcia-Cardona discharged his weapon several times, according to a police statement, striking Lee in the torso.
Police shootings in Philadelphia have dropped 80% over the last six years, yet the encounter was the second time this summer that police shot a man under suspect circumstances in Kensington, where mental health and substance abuse issues live on 24-7 public display. The shooting has reignited scrutiny of the department’s policies about use of force — and whether officers are properly trained to de-escalate these types of situations.
PPD policy states that officers may use lethal force if they feel “objectively reasonable belief” that there is “an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury.”
“He was charging,” an unidentified officer said after Lee’s shooting, as police pushed back a crowd at the scene.
Court records and interviews with family members suggest the Germantown man was in the throes of mental health crisis prior to his police run-in.
Lee is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, his family said, whose mental health had been deteriorating. He struggled to communicate on his good days — even when not under the influence of drugs.
“A lot of times, he can’t even talk. You have to read his body language,” Darrel Lee, the man’s father, told Billy Penn. “I didn’t see him trying to harm [the police]. I’m not just saying that as his dad. I’m just saying what I saw — my son standing there looking confused.”
In August, for the first time in years, Lee was incarcerated on unrelated assault charges. He spent two weeks in jail, some of that time under “medical lockdown,” according to court records. He was released on non-cash bail just one week before the near-fatal shooting.
Lee remains under medical surveillance at Temple University Hospital, where he has undergone multiple surgeries for his gunshot wounds. He has been charged with robbery, aggravated assault, terroristic threats and related offenses. District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office declined to comment on the case.
Once released from the hospital, Lee is likely to return to jail.
Tracing a mental health crisis
Despite initial reports indicating he was homeless, Darin Lee lists his home address with his father in East Germantown. His father initially told Billy Penn that Darin stays at home every night, but later acknowledged his son often stayed away for stretches at a time. “He drifts,” the father said.
Earlier this summer, Darin Lee had been holding down a job on a food truck outside the old probation building and trying to provide some support to his 4-year-old son, according to court records and family members.
Darrel Lee, 51, said his son had been complaining about taking his antipsychotic medication — Seroquel, a drug commonly prescribed to people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He had also stopped going to his outpatient group, the name of which the father did not know. He said his son’s illicit drug use, particularly with hallucinogenic PCP, only made matters worse.
“His mental health has been deteriorating because he’s self-medicating instead of going to his groups,” his father said.
“He had been talking to himself,” Darrel added in another interview.
Toward the end of the summer, things would unravel further.
‘Serious’ allegations and medical treatment in jail
On Aug. 11, about three weeks prior to being shot by police, Lee was allegedly involved in a violent altercation on a SEPTA bus in North Philadelphia.
Lee’s father recalled few details about the case, but said it involved a dispute over bus fare.
Police allege Lee punched and spit on a driver in what charging documents describe as an attempted theft. Prosecutors charged the 31-year-old with robbery, simple assault and related charges. He spent two weeks in jail, much of it under unspecified medical supervision, according to court dockets.
Public defenders representing Lee petitioned for his $50,000 bail to be waived. Lee had no history of skipping court appearances, said Anna Shapiro, his court-appointed attorney.
“He does struggle with some mental health issues,” Shapiro told the court, according to transcripts. “He had been following through and getting [connected] with some services for that.”
Shapiro added it had been seven years since Lee’s last contact with law enforcement — a 2012 conviction on drug charges. Assistant District Attorney Alysha Clarke countered that the allegations were “serious enough” to warrant bail. Lee also faced an attempted murder and firearms charge as a juvenile, though those charges had been diverted to Family Court, Clarke noted.
Municipal Court Judge Joffie C. Pittman III agreed to release Lee with an order to stay away from the SEPTA bus driver until the case was resolved. The terms included avoiding contact with all law enforcement.
“I have no problem with the court’s order. God bless you. No problem,” Lee said in court.
Three days after his release, Lee did show up for his scheduled appearance, court records show. The SEPTA bus driver did not. Jane Roh, DAO spokesperson, said the transit authority witness “did not provide an explanation for their failure to appear in court.”
His father was at the Jersey shore during the time Darrin was in custody, Darrel Lee said, and didn’t hear from his son until after his release, when he came to the house asking to borrow money to get some food. The father gave him $20, and didn’t see him again that evening.
It was after midnight when he got a phone call saying his son had been shot by police.
Calls for officer training: ‘Whatever they need to not shoot first’
Charito Morales, a nurse and activist in Kensington, said the shooting demonstrates the lack of training officers have to intervene during a crisis involving mental health issues, substance abuse — or in this case, both.
“If they take the time to train, it is easy for you to see that the person is going through trauma, or the person is under the influence,” Morales said. “They should be re-trained on all levels…whatever they need to not shoot first.”
Advocates and attorneys argue officers could have used a taser on Lee, though it is not clear if any of the officers on scene were carrying the alternative deterrent that night. In 2015, fewer than half of uniformed officers in Philadelphia were equipped with electronic control weapons. Morales said a police commander told her the officers were waiting for a taser to arrive when Lee began to move toward them.
PPD spokesperson Capt. Sekou Kinebrew pointed to the department’s crisis response policy, which outlines practices for dealing with a mentally disabled person.
“Retreating or re-positioning is not a sign of weakness or cowardice by an officer,” the policy states, in part. “It is often a tactically superior police procedure rather than the immediate use of force.”
Kinebrew did not answer specific questions about the officers’ training or response, citing the ongoing investigation. Experts say more intervention and de-escalation training can reduce the number of deadly incidents with the police.
In 2012, Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health implemented a free program to help train people to better identify and respond to mental health crises.
“Just as CPR helps you assist an individual having a heart attack, Mental Health First Aid helps you assist someone experiencing a mental health or substance use-related crisis,” said Maria Boswell, director of the Health Promotion unit at the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health.
To date, the department has trained more than 35,000 individuals in its Mental Health First Aid program. Though the effort has been partially geared toward law enforcement, fewer than 1,000 of those trainees were Philadelphia police officers, according to statistics provided by Boswell.
In Philadelphia, officers who were not authorized to speak on the record said mental health training within the department is minimal. For years, officers have lamented being called into situations they believe are better suited for mental health specialists. Some say the opioid crisis has further increased the number of roles city cops are asked to fulfill.
‘They shot me up, now they tryin’ to lock me up’
Criminal defense attorney Shaka Johnson, who is representing Lee, noted that the police would have had no knowledge of Lee’s recent trials when they confronted him at Front and Allegheny. But they should have been able to read the signs and disarm him without lethal force.
“Even if a person has a boxcutter in their hand, under those very special circumstances I don’t think he needed to be shot, period — let alone as many times as he was,” Johnson told Billy Penn.
Darrel Lee said his son has undergone multiple surgeries, and is now aware of the legal troubles that lay ahead for him.
“He told me, ‘Dad, they shot me up and now they tryin’ to lock me up'” Lee said. “So that’s where he’s at right now.”
As Philadelphia implements sweeping criminal justice reforms, Ruth Shefner, director of the Goldring Reentry Initiative at Penn, says people like Lee with mental health and substance abuse issues are struggling to connect with the resources they need upon release from county detention centers. Anecdotally, she says they are more likely to end up back in custody.
“It’s a trapping cycle,” Shefner said.
Back in Kensington, Morales, the community activist, said the shooting and subsequent response by the police department has driven another wedge between the already strained police-community relations.
Lee’s shooting came just over three months after a plainclothes detective in Kensington shot and injured a developmentally disabled man who was unarmed. Police said the officer believed the man was yelling and pointing a weapon at him in his vehicle. Surveillance video showed the man panhandling for change in traffic prior to being shot.
On Sept. 6, Morales, Lee’s family and other activists gathered at the scene of Lee’s shooting to call for accountability. During the demonstration, Morales said she observed a police cruiser drive by, and saw the officer flip the crowd the middle finger.
“We want to change our community, and we want our community to trust law enforcement,” Morales said. “How am I going to talk to a police officers sticking the finger at me?”